Oct. 9, 2002
Coming out of high school, Brooke Novak was a stellar pick-up for any college in the nation. The Track & Field News All-American ranked second in the nation in the mile her senior year and was a back-to-back Gatorade Wisconsin Female Track and Field Athlete of the Year. She was also a three-time state champion in the 1600 meters - breaking Suzy Favor-Hamilton's 1985 state record as a junior in 4:48.13 and setting the mark again as a senior at 4:43.20.
Novak was undefeated in the 1600m and 3200m her junior and senior years. In all, Novak won six state championships, including a cross country state title in 2000 and a track and field team crown in 2001. She was virtually unbeatable.
With the awards piling up and her high school career coming to an end, Novak faced one of the toughest decisions a teenage athlete has to make. There was no doubt she had the ability to take her running career to the collegiate level. The only question was where her running was going to take her.
Schools from around the nation began calling. From the South to the West Coast, it seemed like everyone was interested in Novak. But when the decision had to be made, Novak chose to become a Tennessee Lady Volunteer.
"It's a lot different and a lot warmer," Novak said, comparing her Wisconsin heritage to her move to the South. "This was the first school I came to, and I just fell in love with it. I don't know, there was something about Tennessee I just loved."
After some thought, Novak pinpointed the exact reason Tennessee was her choice.
"The thing I loved was the academic support here as an athlete," she said. "In high school, I had a lot of academic support, and I wanted the same kind of support I had back home. A lot of teachers on campus here are willing to help no matter what - not just because I'm an athlete, but because they worry about academics. They're on top of things."
Fueling the fire for high academic standards is the Thornton Athletics Student Life Center - a state-of-the-art facility for assisting student-athletes with their academic needs. Then there's first-year cross country/track & field coach J.J. Clark. Besides his numerous accolades as a coach, he has also made a name for himself because of his student-athletes' near-perfect graduation rate during his years as an assistant coach at Florida. And for Novak, Clark's dedication to academics has been a tremendous asset.
For instance, when Novak notified Clark that she had two child and family studies tests in one day, Clark didn't hesitate to give the sophomore a day off from the weight room to study for her exams.
"Coach Clark's really good about that," said Novak, who is now a sophomore in child and family studies. "If you need to study, he will give you the time off."
Her athletic relationship with the school got started on the right foot last year too, when she bolted out of the gates to take the title in her first cross country meet as a collegiate runner. It was the Mountaineer Open in Boone, N.C., on Aug. 31, 2001, and she won with a time of 17:39. The Southeastern Conference even took notice of the Midwestern transplant when it named her the first SEC Cross Country Athlete of the Week for the 2001 season. Things couldn't have worked out better for Novak. That is, until the following week.
"Right after that race, I started having leg problems and really couldn't even practice," she said. "There was tightness in my leg. We really didn't understand what it was. There was a lot of pain, so I would do a lot of cardio, thinking that it (the cause of the pain) was racing. I wasn't used to racing such a long distance."
The pain and tightness was constant. It never let up. It was so bothersome that she had to miss the following two meets. She returned to the course, however, at the Furman Invitational and was Tennessee's second finisher. She even competed in the SEC Championships after spending the entire week prior to the meet strictly doing cardiovascular exercises, which included a prescription of no racing. She finished 10th to earn All-SEC honors.
"I think cross country is all mental," she said. "If you can hold out mentally, you can do it. I think that's what helped me at the SEC meet. I was like, 'I have to do this because if I don't, I'm not going to help my team.'"
The pain, however, was still there. For Christmas Break, she returned to Wisconsin and went to see a doctor about her condition. When she returned to Knoxville, she had appointments with two other orthopedists. Each had their own take on the subject, but the physicians' opinions differed only slightly. Finally, Novak took the advice of UT's athletic trainers and simply rested her leg.
"In any stress-related injury, you want to reduce the stress," said Autumn Plympton-Crompton, a Lady Vol athletic trainer who works with the cross country and track & field teams. "Reducing the stress occurs by reducing the pounding of running and by getting rest."
That meant no track season, something Novak was dearly looking forward to.
"Cross country is very important, and I like it," she said. "But my love is track. So it was really disappointing."
Skipping her first track and field season brought on mixed feelings for Novak. She became somewhat homesick. She missed her parents, so she spent last summer at home in Kaukauna. But after spending time away from her teammates in Knoxville, it was clear to Novak that Tennessee was her home away from home.
"Once I got back home, I realized I really loved it here," Novak said. "I realized that everything that happened had made me a better person. It just made me older and wiser."
This season has been a whole lot better for Novak. From athletics to academics, she has gotten used to the everyday grind of being a student and being a student-athlete. Of course, the disappearance of a nagging leg injury has its benefits as well. But she has found that the coaching cliche about an athlete learning the most from the first year to the second holds true.
"I've learned a lot," she said. "I've been through a lot - I think more than most freshmen have to deal with. I've struggled academically, athletically and personally. That freshman year was probably about five years of college all put into one."
With her injury and academic worries out of the way, Novak has been able to develop athletically, something she missed last year. Her 2002 cross country comeback was officially established by finishing third at the Tennessee Invitational with a time of 18:17.02. She was the Lady Vols' second finisher behind teammate Sharon Dickie, who won the event.
Novak sat out the second meet of the season because of a training plan that Clark has in place for her. Thanks to that schedule, Novak doesn't have to worry about overdoing it with the demands of cross country. After missing last year's track and field season, there's no way she's going to miss this one. But her focus this fall remains on the outdoor course. In fact, it's her cross country experience that will fuel her track desire.
"Her cross country ability will allow her to run great track," Clark said. "One feeds the other. If she wants to run very good track, she needs to run very good cross country."
Clark hopes that will be the case on Saturday, Oct.12, as Novak and company head to University Park, Pa., to compete in the PSU National Invitational. The meet, which will mark Tennessee's first go at the 6000-meter championship distance in 2002, stacks up as a difficult challenge. Novak and UT hope to run "very good cross country" when they face off against No. 8 Providence, No. 21 Villanova, No. 22 William & Mary and No. 25 host Penn State as well as 14 other schools.